Ballplayer, sportscaster, manager, Marine Corps aviator—former New York Yankees second-baseman Jerry Coleman succeeded at all of these. Guess which one he prizes most?
By any standard, I've had a great career. I played second base for the New York Yankees, was manager of the San Diego Padres, and have been a sportscaster for almost five decades. But the most important part of my life was the five years I spent in uniform. I was a Marine Corps aviator in World War II and the Korean War.
I made my decision to join when I was 17. The Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor, and in my generation the question wasn't whether to enlist in the military; it was which branch you were going to join. Then two naval aviators visited my high school to recruit for the V-5 program, which turned out Navy pilots. I decided right then that I wanted those wings of gold.
You had to be 18 to start flight school, and that was still six months away. I'd already been awarded a baseball and basketball scholarship to the University of Southern California, and a Yankee scout gave me a chance to play with their minor league club that summer. When the season was over, on my 18th birthday I went to San Francisco to enlist.
I barely made it into the V-5 program. My high school grades were mainly Cs, and the recruiting officer was skeptical. But I promised him I'd study hard, and I did. At preflight school, Joe Foss, the war's celebrated Marine Corps ace, inspired us with tales of his combat experiences, and I decided to become a Marine aviator.
Like a lot of people, I saw my share of action. Commissioned in April 1944, I spent the next 12 months flying Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers out of Green Island, a speck in the Solomons that had little else besides an airstrip, as a member of VMSB-341.
I never sank a carrier as I'd envisioned as a high school senior. But I flew 57 missions in the battles for the Solomon Islands and the Philippines, including dive-bombing raids and close air support for Army and Marine Corps ground troops. When the Japanese surrendered, I returned home and resumed my baseball career.
In October 1951, I got word that the Marine Corps would want me back for a second tour—this time in the Korean War. I'd been playing second base for the Yankees, and we'd just beaten the New York Giants in the World Series when I was called to Alameda, California. A Marine Corps major offered to take me to lunch.
"What do you think about going back in the service?" he asked. I told him I hadn't thought much about it. "We're going to get you," he said, for a tour of 18 months. I asked if he could take me immediately so I'd miss only one baseball season, but it didn't work out that way. I traded my Yankee pinstripes for Marine greens in April 1952, with no hard feelings.
I flew Corsair attack planes in Korea. They were magnificent aircraft, but the nose was so far from the cockpit that you couldn't see right in front of you. If you made a mistake, either taking off or landing, you were in trouble. I had two close calls on a runway, each time carrying 1,000-pound bombs, but I escaped unharmed. I flew 63 missions overall.
I wasn't the only major league player to go off to war, either in World War II or in Korea. Ted Williams, Bobby Brown, Bob Feller—there were many of them. But I think I was the only one who saw combat in both wars. By the time I returned from Korea, in 1953, my record for both wars included two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals, and three Navy citations.
The Marine Corps has never left me. I stayed in the Reserve, retiring in 1964 as a lieutenant colonel. I've helped with recruiting drives and special assignments that the Corps wanted me to carry out. I married the daughter of a retired Marine colonel. And most of all, I've kept in touch with my squadron-mates.
When I came back from Korea, I found myself dealing with the same question that every veteran asks: Why was I returning, when my buddies weren't? I wasn't that great a pilot. No one was. But God let some of us come back, and called others. The Yankees' publicity department gave me a hero's welcome, but I was uneasy about it.
One of my most disheartening experiences was when, just before a game at Yankee Stadium, I met the wife of Major Max Harper, a great guy who had been my tent-mate in Korea. Max had gotten hit during a raid over North Korea and went straight in. There was nothing anyone could do.
Max's wife showed up, distraught, on the morning of "Jerry Coleman Day," which the Yankees had set up to honor my military service. Mrs. Harper had been hoping that Max had been captured and might still be alive. She wanted to know whether he really had died, and said she wouldn't accept it from anyone but me. I was flying right behind Max. She was devastated when I told her he was dead.
In truth, I left a lot in Korea. I never was as good on the ballfield as I'd been before the war. I'd lost my depth perception, and I couldn't hit anything. A year after I returned home, I broke my collar bone in Yankee Stadium. During my final two years with the team I had to play part-time.
But overall, my career has been a rewarding one. All told, I spent nine years with the Yankees and did a year as manager of the San Diego Padres. Then, too old to play baseball anymore, I became a sportscaster—first for the Yankees and later for the Padres. In 2005 I was elected to the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I still look back at my military service as the most important thing I've ever done. Sure, it's a thrill to be part of a championship baseball team, and it's heady to be a recognized broadcaster. But serving in the military—particularly in the Marines, if you'll forgive a little partisanship—trumps all that in a flash. The Yankees are up there, but not as high.
Training and going into combat with people imbues you with a sense of loyalty that makes you put your responsibility to your comrades ahead of everything else—not only while you're in uniform, but for the rest of your life. The friends I made in the Corps have been like brothers all these many years—and they'll remain so for life.
My years on active duty left me with a heightened sense of perspective—about life, about my career, and about the preciousness of life itself. The memories of the guys I flew with in World War II and in Korea have never faded, and neither has my pride in the Corps. I was lucky to get home alive. And I was lucky to have been a Marine.